Nfld. & Labrador

NONIA at 100: Legendary knitwear manufacturer has quite the history

Talk about a yarn. NONIA — the Newfoundland Outport Nursing and Industrial Association — is marking its 100th anniversary this week. 

Talk a great yarn! NONIA's history is deeply entwined into N.L.'s rural communities

Newfoundland and Labrador artist Donna Clouston created this image as the top part of her 2020 calendar. (Donna Clouston/Submitted by NONIA)

Mention the name NONIA to a local and chances are you'll get a smile — and a yarn about a treasured hand-knitted item. 

Formally known as the Newfoundland Outport Nursing and Industrial Association, NONIA is marking its 100th anniversary this week. It was on May 27, 1920, that Lady Constance Harris, wife of then governor Sir Alexander Harris, established the Outport Nursing Committee, which later went on to become the organization that thrives to this day, with a landmark store in downtown St. John's.

The NONIA brand is known internationally for the high quality of its sweaters, mittens and other knitwears, but its history in providing rural health care is no longer as well known. 

One hundred years ago, there were more than 1,300 coastal communities without basic health care. NONIA was founded to assist those communities in accessing health services. 

"There was a lot of poverty in the outports, and so there was very little medical care," general manager Keelin O'Leary told Weekend AM host Heather Barrett about the organization's early years. 

"Lady Harris led a movement of interested people to figure out a method by which they could raise money to pay for the nursing care in the outports," said O'Leary. "And so they formed the Outport Nursing Committee with the idea of organizing women's labour to create knitting goods which they would sell, and the money could be used to pay for the nurses."

A thank you note sent to a Mrs. Gould in 1928 from Lady Allardyce, the wife of then Governor Sir William Allardyce. (Karen Misik/Submitted by NONIA)

Knit a sweater, help pay for a nursing station 

The model proved important. Six nursing stations were established, "but they were expensive to run," says a Facebook post on NONIA history by The Rooms. In 1924, Lady Elsie Elizabeth Allardyce, the wife of governor William Allardyce, made an appeal to the women of Newfoundland, and helped changed the lot of many rural women. 

"A cottage industry developed to support the salary of the nurses and pay the crafts people for their work. For some women this was their first time earning money of their own," The Rooms' post notes. 

According to Heritage Newfoundland & Labrador, there were a dozen nurses on NONIA's payroll in 1926, "and between 1921 and 1934 NONIA nurses worked in 29 communities and handled 83,000 cases." 

In 1934, the government took over the cost of all health care. By that time NONIA was well established and was creating income for women in outports, and so the knitting effort continued as an industrial endeavour. The money the women earned through their knitting was used to help support their households to buy food, clothing and medicine.   

Fast-forward to this month: On its actual 100th anniversary day, NONIA had planned to hold its annual general meeting at Government House, to be followed by a sod-turning ceremony of a bronze sculpture, commemorating the milestone.

It was not to be. The COVID-19 pandemic changed that plan, at least for now. 

Knitting for NONIA for 50+ years

Some of today's NONIA's knitters have been a part of an industry to keep knitting skills alive for more than five decades. 

Gloria Russell of Winterbrook has been knitting for NONIA for 53 years. She told Weekend AM her mother-in-law taught her how to knit in 1966, and she hasn't put down her needles since.

"I enjoy every minute of it," she said.

Russell, like so many other NONIA knitters, has created children's and adults sweaters, caps and mitts — and everything between.

"Right now I'm knitting cardigans, shawl-collared little sweaters. It's nice to have a challenge to do something different," she said. "And the 'Fortune Bay Sweater,' as it's called, is something to look forward to." 

Special anniversary quilt

To recognize the 100th anniversary, a centenary knitters' blanket was assembled from 108 squares made by as many NONIA knitters across Newfoundland and Labrador. 

It was a project that took two years to complete, and includes 12 squares from women who have been knitting for NONIA for more than 50 years. 

This is the 108-piece centenary blanket created by NONIA knitters across the province. Knitters were invited to make a five-inch square using whatever stitches and colours they wanted. Many of the squares reflect the patterns of popular NONIA products. (Jane Brokenshire/NONIA Facebook page)

NONIA's flagship retail store has been located on Water Street in St. John's since 1958. Before that, it was headquartered in the Newfoundland Hotel from 1933 to 1957.

About 150 knitters and weavers from across Newfoundland and Labrador are employed, producing NONIA's iconic hand-knit sweaters, socks, hats and mitts. The store also carries woven placemats, runners, napkins and scarves.

We thought to commemorate the occasion we'd featured a selection of photos, archival and recent, to highlight a century of NONIA. 

Listen to the May 23 segment of Weekend AM with host Heather Barrett, as she interviews NONIA manager Keelin O'Leary and longtime NONIA knitter Gloria Russell:

This hand-knitted NONIA dress, known as the 'Phyllis jumper' in 1925, was made by Mrs. P. Janes. (Archives and Special Collections, Queen Elizabeth II Library, MUN)
An article featuring NONIA in the 1925 edition of The Newfoundland Quarterly. (Archives and Special Collections, Queen Elizabeth II Library, MUN)
This is the cover of NONIA's 1951 annual report. It would have been presented at the organization's annual meeting at Government House in St. John's. (Submitted by Archives and Special Collections, Queen Elizabeth II Library, MUN)
The interior of the NONIA store, circa 1960s. (Submitted by Archives and Special Collections, Queen Elizabeth II Library, MUN)
This sweater, donated to NONIA a few years ago, features a pattern that was created around 1960. (NONIA/Facebook)
This lace shawl was made by Annie Lane of Salvage. Lane knit for NONIA for 68 years. (Submitted by NONIA)
In the summer of 1969, the City of St. John's transformed a section of Water Street into a promenade. A variety of events were held, including concerts and fashion shows. In this photo, Lisa Gushue models a NONIA sweater and cap for one of those shows. (Submitted by Lisa Gushue)
NONIA knitters live in communities, towns and cities all across the province, as demonstrated in this map. (Submitted by NONIA)
The knitting ladies of Musgravetown gathered for a chat, some knitting and to pose for a photo in 2004. (Ned Pratt/Submitted by NONIA)
A close-up of the centenary blanket, showing the many patterns and colours NONIA knitters chose. (Jane Brokenshire/Submitted by NONIA)
The iconic caribou design is part of NONIA's centenary collection. (NONIA/Facebook)
This sweater is one of hundreds on display at NONIA's retail store in St. John's. (NONIA/Facebook)
NONIA was incorporated as a non-profit business in 1924 after being founded in 1920. One-hundred years later many of their iconic patterns are still some of the most popular. (NONIA/Facebook)
The 'knitting hands' of Jessie Chaffey, a longtime knitter for NONIA. This image is part of the organization's marketing collateral, which includes notecards and posters. (Ned Pratt/Submitted by NONIA)


Our sincere thanks to archivist Linda White with Archives and Special Collections, Queen Elizabeth II Library, and NONIA manager Keelin O'Leary for their assistance with this feature.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


Lisa Gushue

CBC News

Lisa Gushue is a newsreader and digital editor with CBC News in St. John's.

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